Tag Archives: interpersonal communication

The Phone Test

                           Source: Quora.com

If you are talking to a friend or colleague and your phone rings, who gets first priority?

One characteristic of effective communicators is how easily they warm to the chance to engage with others.  As this blog has noted before, conversation is the primary model for human communication. Exchanges with others fill in all of the essential boxes for what it means to be fully social.  The mutuality of exchange that happens when communicating in real time and space is the essence of our social selves.  It’s no coincidence that important celebrations and rituals take place in the presence of others.

If we are looking for a simple first impression of how much this central dynamic matters to a person—how much they have dedicated their life to direct engagement—there is a simple indicator found in an even simpler daily occurrence.  The test can be explained as a question: If you are talking to a friend or colleague and your phone rings, who gets first priority? Do you silence the phone, or do you put the live body in front of you on hold while you respond to the caller?  Who gets the green light?

My impression is that most individuals will put their communication with the person in front of them on hold. Their interlocutor is essentially silenced mid-thought.  That’s not good, but too few of us seem able to resist the bait.

It’s fair to situate this as at least a minor discourtesy.  Why would an electronic artifact of another person—potentially even a stranger—take priority over the person in front of you?

Phones are, for many, the gateway to immediate gratification.

We see this pattern frequently when a person is seeking the help of a clerk in a store.  It’s not unusual to see the clerk break off or delay the exchange to take a call.  My students tell me their employers in restaurants, supermarkets and similar settings remind them to always take the call, even if the customer in front of them has to wait.  To put the effect on the customer in terms Bernie Sanders that might recognize:  ‘Enough with the damn phone interruptions!’

Our blindness to the obvious differences between electronic avatars and real human beings should give us pause. An interrupted conversation is a recension of an important kind of acknowledgment. It devalues a conversational partner.

The problem is that these devices now pass as ersatz gateways. The urge to immediately respond to a call suggests a vain hope it will offer a kind of emotional reward. To turn a phone off even for a short period is to potentially sail into a storm of unplanned encounters or worse yet, maybe a moment of silence.  And for more of us, that’s a risk not worth taking. A phone’s promise of immediacy masks its more routine function as a conveyor of triviality.  Maybe a call will make our day, even though the odds for this kind of lottery are very low.  Why not show a little more interest in the human a few inches away?

The Simplification Bonus

                         The business end of an electric car                                                                           EVTV Motor Verks

We may be at the edge of a period when consumer technology blends more easily into our lives. Silicon-based devices like iPhones may finally yield back to the quirks of our carbon-based and biological selves.

We tend to think in terms of the greater complexities of living in our age.  Phones, passwords, online accounts and the like all add to the burden of keeping our lives on track. But there is an interesting reverse trend happening in the auto industry.  And it may offer a lesson for the rest of us.

Basically, cars are going to become mechanically much simpler.  Newer electric cars are likely to be loaded with sensors and smart computers, but the mechanical side of an electric car is a study in simplicity. Their key advantage is that an electric motor has high torque even at slow speeds. So Teslas and the scores of new models planned by other manufacturers do not need the kinds of transmissions used now to capture a gas engine’s variable power output. This is so significant because a complex part of any conventional car is its elaborate transmission and drivetrain. By contrast, an electric motor just goes, not particularly bothered by demands for low or high-speeds. In some ways, this means a Tesla has more in common with a clothes dryer than a car driven by an internal combustion engine. If you are in the transmission business in Detroit or Osaka, that’s a problem. But it’s all good for buyers of the more inexpensive electric cars on the horizon.

In a related trend, recent reports from the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas signal a flattening of the innovation curve for digital media and devices. This year techies weren’t much impressed by what they saw in the way of new products.  Apparently, a “virtual reality” headset can be about as much fun as wearing a football helmet backwards.

It would be a fool’s errand to bet against change in this field. But we may be at the edge of a period when newer devices blend more seamlessly into our lives. Innovations tend to be followed by periods of consolidation, where new inventions must meld into existing patterns of human behavior. Never completely, of course.  But significantly. For example, many people who own “personal assistants,” such as Amazon’s Alexa or Google’s Home, use them essentially as radios.  As it turns out, these devices use streaming, to the benefit of the older medium that was once given up for dead.

If the pattern of consolidation continues, silicon-based devices like iPhones may finally yield back to the quirks of our carbon-based and biological selves. Call me an optimist, but this could mean that while we appreciate the easy of connecting to family and friends over long distances, we will also cherish the HD experience of being in the same space with them. Similarly, perhaps phone connectivity may go the way of e-mail: OK, but nothing worth spending hours on. Texts may become another form of contemporary signage: pointing us to where we want to go and who we want to meet. And tweets may finally be given the status they merit: interruptions in conversations that barely merit a second glance. At least for adults on the far side of adolescence, the durable world of unadulterated and unmediated contact may again look enticing.